Background: The workload of emergency departments (ED) continually changes in response to presentations, overcrowding and availability of expertise and investigations.
Aims: To investigate changes in ED presentations and care processes, and the relationship of patient demand and ED staff resources to waiting times and processing times.
Methods: Retrospective analysis of prospectively collected administrative data from January 1999 to April 2005 in an emergency department in a university teaching hospital in Hong Kong. All patients attending the emergency department during the study period were included. Monthly attendance data were retrieved and analysed to determine both qualitative and quantitative changes in the patterns of presentation to the ED using prospectively gathered data.
Results: Total ED attendances decreased by 25% during the study with little seasonal variation. The admission rate and the use of ambulances increased steadily and significantly. Medical patients are increasing proportionately, but trauma patients are decreased in number.
Conclusion: There have been major changes in the patterns of ED attendances and ED waiting times over the study period in this teaching hospital ED. Decreasing overall ED numbers are offset by an increasingly elderly population and a more complex case mix. Reducing clinical staff numbers appears to reduce the ED's capacity to provide timely assessments and care and to function as hospital gatekeepers. Restoring staff numbers to previous levels may improve the quality and timeliness of ED services. It is necessary to refine measures of ED complexity and workload to determine appropriate staffing levels in the future.
Keywords: Admissions; Attendances; Case mix; Demand; Emergency departments; Hong Kong; Resources.